UK immigration laws are stifling culture

Trump’s controversial immigration order has caused international outrage. One story that particularly resonated with Trump’s critics was that of Asghar Farhadi, the director of The Salesman, who boycotted the Oscars this year because he was born in Iran, one of the countries on Trump’s blacklist. Though Farhadi was granted access to the US, he said he could not attend the awards ceremony, ‘out of respect for the people of my country and those of the other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the US’.

For many, Farhadi’s protest cut to the heart of Trump’s illiberalism – his policies were blocking not only the free travel of individuals, but also the free exchange of culture and ideas.

But this recent outrage over Trump’s ban ignores the incredibly restrictive measures artists already face when they try to bring their work to the West. This is particularly true of the UK. Since the Home Office scrapped the specialist visa for ‘writers, composers and artists’ in 2008, it has become incredibly difficult for non-EU-based artists to gain entry to the UK. Artists are now required to apply for a more general points-based visa.

Of course, artists shouldn’t get special treatment over other workers. But it is difficult to broadly categorise the work that artists (including writers and musicians) do. Even if artists’ work is exceptional or groundbreaking, they might suffer penalties and be refused a visa if they do not earn a lot of money. Under the current points-based system, they can be penalised for being self-taught, rather than having a formal degree. Nikhil Singh, a critically acclaimed illustrator from South Africa, was denied entry to the UK simply because he didn’t go to university. This meant he was unable to attend his own book launch at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London.

The Manifesto Club, a British organisation that champions civil liberties, cites numerous cases where visa restrictions have caused serious problems for the arts industry. Many residencies, performances and exhibitions have been cancelled or delayed because of nightmarish visa issues.

Speaking to the Manifesto Club, Mia Jankowicz, former manager of the Gasworks residency programme for international artists, said: ‘I noticed the mounting of exceptional difficulties in bringing artists over – even from countries that had had a very smooth process in previous years.’ ‘Only last year’, she continued, ‘two residencies were significantly delayed due to astonishing and, frankly, bloody-minded delays caused by visa authorities. This is despite meeting all requirements, extremely strong planning, and the support of at least two high-profile London institutions.’

Some have speculated that visa restrictions for non-EU nationals are tough because the government has struggled to meet its immigration targets. In 2013, Canadian author Leah McLaren wrote in the Spectator: ‘David Cameron has promised to halve net immigration to Britain by the next election. The problem is that he has no control over the EU nationals who come to settle. So the only way he can meet his target is to deter people like me: non-EU nationals.’

These ridiculous bureaucratic measures act as barriers to cultural development. Our existing immigration policy and visa system are incapable of dealing with complexity and nuance. After Brexit, questions around immigration will be up for debate. And, if we truly want to live in a culturally exciting, cosmopolitan and open society, we must argue for an open and liberal attitude towards immigration, for artists and everyone else.

Candice Holdsworth is the founder and editor of Imagine Athena.

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